The Bryant University volleyball team spends the spring season tirelessly working to improve for the fall and the goal of a Northeast Conference championship.
On Wednesday nights, when the Bulldogs have finished a day complete with classes, practice and lift, they grab a quick dinner and return to the Chace Athletic Center gym for some more time on the court – with athletes from Special Olympics Rhode Island.
"I started volunteering with Special Olympics 23 years ago," head coach Theresa Garlacy said. "Someone passed my name along to get me involved as a referee. I would go around to different locations and officiate Special Olympics. While I was doing that, I realized the level of play wasn't what it needed to be. It tended to be dominated by the partners and the athletes weren't getting the touches they needed, and many of the partners were athletes, but played other sports."
Garlacy realized her experience with the sport, in addition to her role as a collegiate head coach, afforded an opportunity for the Special Olympics athletes to learn the skills of volleyball from the Bryant coaches and athletes.
The Bulldogs' involvement began as a clinic at a match once or twice per season and would grow from there. Garlacy eventually had some additional referees joining her at Special Olympics events – in the form of her Bryant players.
That tradition continued until the middle of the current decade, when Bryant expanded on the partnership with a student-athlete interning at Special Olympics Rhode Island's new offices a mile from the Bryant campus, while bringing the athletes to the Chace Athletic Center for the Wednesday night clinics.
"Jana Kmec was our first intern," Garlacy said. "She took the opportunity and ran with it. From there, I backed off and let the kids run it. They plan everything."
The current format, a two-hour clinic, involves an hour of skills and drills followed by an hour of games. The program was spearheaded this spring by sophomore Nikki Kim (River Edge, N.J.), who handled organizing, scheduling and planning out the events for the Special Olympics athletes in the Wednesday night clinics.
"It's valuable for us to be involved in the community and with Special Olympics – other things outside of school and volleyball," Kim said. "It's a good way for us to learn that there's more out there beyond our own worlds."
The Bulldogs' time on the court with the Special Olympics athletes is rewarding for both sides, especially in those moments when the lessons being taught in the skill sessions come through during games.
"It's great to see our skills on the court translate to what we're teaching the athletes," Kim said. "To see that happiness when they're succeeding on the court, having learned a skill we've worked on with them, makes us happy too."
"As a student athlete, it's important to give back, because it's a good reminder of how lucky and blessed we are to have the ability we have," freshman Alisi Motu'apuaka (Virginia Beach, Va.) said. "Working with an organization like Special Olympics is a great eye-opener for us. The skills they have on the court – serving, passing, calling 'mine' on a ball – it makes them really happy. It's good perspective for us."
The clinics have wrapped up for the summer, but the Special Olympics athletes won't be away from the Chace Athletic Center for long. Many of them will have front row seats to some Bryant matches in the fall, cheering on the women who have helped grow their appreciation for the game.
"Having the athletes at our matches makes a huge impact on us," Kim said. "When we're excited after a key point, they're right there with us. Them being there for us, and their energy in those big moments, means a lot to us."
Teaching the sport of volleyball to a new audience has been impactful for both the Bulldogs and the Special Olympics athletes. It has brought the game to new players, who can use their newfound enjoyment of volleyball to bond with the Bryant players both spring and fall.
"These student-athletes are gifted in the classroom and on the court, and it's so important to see how their gifts can be used in other ways outside of just winning and losing games," Garlacy said. "They need to know that their skills are valuable and they can use them to share their love for volleyball with other people and have a sense of community in the gym."